Give Your Values This Holiday Season: Buy Mexican

Sending dollars across the border offers a pushback to Trump's ugly, anti-Mexican rhetoric.

Mexican restaurant chef in Teotihuacan, Mexico.
Photo Credit: Aleksandar Todorovic/Shutterstock

Still shopping for holiday gifts? Here’s an idea: buy something from Mexico. How about a piece of gorgeous handmade embroidery? Filigreed gold earrings? Or a bottle of the trendiest spirit of the season, mezcal?  While you’re at it, you can give a helping hand to the victims of Mexico’s massive earthquakes, and a stiff pushback to the ugly, anti-Mexican rhetoric of Donald Trump.

Residents of the Isthmus region of Mexico—the narrow strip of land in Oaxaca State between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts—are struggling to recover from the biggest earthquake to hit Mexico in 100 years. Many are still living in tents, since their houses have collapsed, and the rubble of fallen buildings is piled in the streets.

But the huge outdoor market in Juchitán, the southern city hit hardest by the historic quake, is still hopping. And a group of women is working to rebuild the local economy by spreading the word that people can buy products from the area, even if they live far away.

Women run most of the market stalls in Juchitán. They make and sell tortillas, garnachas and a wealth of delicious seafood. And they create the world-famous embroidery—traditional black velvet strapless gowns covered with colorful silk flowers—that are typical of the region. Central to keeping that tradition alive are muxes, the spectacularly adorned transgender women of the Isthmus, who alongside their mothers and grandmothers, form the backbone of the economy and culture, as supporters and caretakers of the family and guardians of an ancient way of life.

Shalia Ruiz, an energetic young woman who had a three-day Isthmus-style wedding only weeks before the quake, gave me a tour of her city after the disaster, wearing her pink “I am the bride” baseball cap. Ruiz is fluent in Spanish and the indigenous language Zapotec, and works for the local courts as a translator. Lately she has been spending most of her free time running back and forth between market stalls and small cottage industries and Mexico’s bigger cities, promoting the women-owned businesses of the Isthmus.

Looking exhausted after an all-night bus ride from Mexico City, she visited the city of Oaxaca last week, to help organize an Isthmus-product market in a picturesque old mezcal factory. Twenty-five vendors will be coming up on Friday, December 15 to sell jewelry, clothing, crafts, and food.  

“I’ve always admired how they protect their traditions and customs in the Isthmus,” said Victor Manuel Chagoya Mendez, the owner of the 100-year-old Casa Chagoya mezcal plant on the outskirts of Oaxaca. He and Shalia were sitting outside, in the factory’s brick breezeway, planning the event. Chagoya has agreed to loan his building to the effort to help the people of the Isthmus. “I really think they will get back on their feet, because of their strong sense of identity,” he added.

Ruiz looked away. The truth is it will take a lot more than a craft market to rebuild Juchitán and surrounding small communities. The city itself looks like it has suffered an aerial bombardment. And now that the TV cameras have departed and national attention has shifted to Mexico’s 2018 presidential election, residents have begun to feel forgotten.

Still, Shalia Ruiz and other locals, including Elvis Guerra, a Zapotec poet who is something of a rock star in Juchitán, are working to help businesses restart. Besides finding new markets for local crafts, they are raising money to donate ovens to women whose livelihood is tortilla-making.

“We’re working to reactivate the local economy,” Guerra explained. “A donation of food lasts two days—then what?” Investing in the local economy could help re-energize the whole region, he suggests.

If you can’t attend the holiday markets in Oaxaca and Mexico City this month, you can buy the products online on the vendors’ Facebook pages. Ruiz has created a website so foreigners can purchase directly from the women who produce the goods.

Why not put a little bit of America’s prodigious consumer spending power to work to help rebuild a devastated region of Mexico? In the spirit of the holidays—or to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Trump presidency—send some dollars across the border.


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Ruth Conniff is editor-at-large for The Progressive Magazine.